Why News Roulette is such a great idea

Just as Nick was about to pull the trigger in the final, deadly game of Russian Roulette in the ‘Deer Hunter’, the tape in the video machine ran out. As I now know (thanks to the internet), playing time is no indicator of recording time: there was no way the E180 tape would be nearly long enough for the 182-minute long movie.

But it’s 2010 now and thank God everything has changed. Instead of Russian Roulette, we have Chatroulette and, even more recently, News Roulette. There’s something about each of these which perfectly captures what we’re doing online these days. The seductive lure of Chatroulette is obvious, but what’s potentially more interesting is its more serious cousin, News Roulette.

Built by Daniel Vydra in just a few hours, the Random Guardian will take you to an arbitrary page published on the Guardian’s website in the past 24 hours. Hitting “play again” will take you to another story. Vydra has created something similar for the New York Times and Australia’s ABC News. By 31 March, Boston.com was tweeting their version: ‘Don’t know what to click on. Try Boston.com news roulette.’

The idea, apparently, was a response to a discussion between Clay Shirky and Chris Thorpe, who – among many other things – thinks and writes about how we read and the importance of serendipity. And it is this very important characteristic that is at the heart of my love of newspapers. And love them I do. I’ve been involved in their production for most of my working life and, despite a deep and meaningful internet addiction, I still spend money on them and even more precious time reading them.

And, like all love relationships, I’ve experienced my fair share of fury and disappointment. That news organisations have taken this long to work out what to do with all that content makes me want to wear red to their funeral, but perhaps I shouldn’t plan my outfit just yet.

Thorpe seems to suggest that perhaps, instead of paywalls and iPads, it’s a little randomness that they need: “If you take me to unknown places, I’ll read more and I’ll spend more time, be more engaged, you can target me better and I’ll love you and buy you things. Bring me wonder and magic and I’ll love you forever.”

And serendipity has always been at the heart of the newspaper experience, offering you rich “social currency” at every, er, page turn. As Slate’s Jack Shafer explained way back in 2008, social currency is “the information we acquire and then trade — or give away — to start, maintain, and nurture relationships with our fellow humans”. Newspapers, then, are brilliant sources of social currency, with all kinds of content – sports, world news and trivia – wrapped up in one cocoon.

Shafer argued at the time that the newspaper was under threat as it was being overtaken by social networks, such as Facebook (and perhaps Twitter more aptly fills this function two years on). But still I would argue that newspapers – be they printed or online – fulfil the social currency function much more efficiently and richly.

Sure, we have RSS readers and content aggregators, but the mix created by newspapers can draw us in in unexpected ways, revealing worlds to us that we would otherwise not know existed. Just ask yourself what you know after spending three hours on the New York Times’s website.

And little apps like News Roulette at least show that news organisations are thinking of creative ways of letting us find it. And for that reason, I say play it again.



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